Monday, April 11, 2016

And In The End, The Fandom You Fake May Outlast the Friendships You Make

First off, yes, that title is quite a reach, but it is a reference to a Beatles lyric.  Good Human Points to the first person who posts which album the song referenced here is from.  :)
     Secondly, I want to thank the many, many people whose readership of this blog has pushed me to over 10,000 views in 11 months.  I will never know for sure how many of you are out there reading this regularly or popping in once or twice a month, but I am grateful to have you. 

   Okay, onto the actual post...  In honor of the Detroit Red Wings making the playoffs for 25 consecutive years, it's about Canada's national pastime and my favorite sport to watch.  Let's open with a question:

How many people who've never laced 'em up and played a game can say their life was defined by the sport of hockey?

     Unlike the other sports I enjoy attending or viewing on TV, hockey is the only one I can't play.  I never had the opportunity or desire to learn to ice skate as a kid, but could easily toss a football, play basketball, and of course, hit the diamond with my brothers in my back yard.  As it was, my maternal grandfather was the only person I knew who cared much for hockey-- he'd played semi-professionally in his younger days, and he even took me to a minor league Detroit Vipers game once.  Other than that, when it came to watching sports, hockey wasn't on my radar in grade school or middle school, although I did sometimes talk to my grandpa about the sport.  Our home team, the Detroit Red Wings, was improving, and on the verge of winning their first championship in over 40 years.  I clearly remember asking my grandpa about them, and was surprised to learn he didn't like them much, or any professional hockey teams, because of TV time outs and, in general, the way the game was changing from how it was played "in his day."

     Paying attention to scores and the team's success through a morning dose of ESPN's SportsCenter was the extent of my hockey knowledge, even though during my first two years of high school the Wings won consecutive Stanley Cups.  This success after an era of futility surely brought hordes of new people onto the Detroit hockey bandwagon.  So, when I hopped aboard in 1999, I was a bit late to the party, by no means the only newly minted fan of the team.  I dare say, however, that my reason for joining, and the outcome, are unique in the annals of sports fandom history.

      Near the end of 11th grade, I was socially adrift.  I did not have a "friend group" that I could readily identify with, which was actually nothing new for me.  Each year since 8th grade I had found myself trying to connect to a new clique, but whatever connections I made were fleeting.  When I was included in an invitation to play (or watch) roller hockey on a makeshift rink in a classmate's barn, I remember "going along with the crowd" and attending.  As most of the boys clashed between hay bales with sticks and a rubber puck, I sat on the bales with the girls and talked.  In retrospect, this was probably the smarter play, if my only goal had been to charm females.  But it was a play borne out of necessity, since I couldn't skate on rollerblades well enough to join the action.  And, if I could have skated, my lungs would have put me on the sidelines sooner rather than later.  Never one to be bitter and hopeful about this new social opportunity, I made the most of it-- and must have done something right.  Or maybe it was just dumb luck-- either way, when people were invited to watch the Red Wings play hockey (with the same classmate serving as the host) I acted as though I was into the sport and the team. 

     Neither was true.  I didn't understand the rules of hockey at all and couldn't, at the time, identify anyone on the team other than a few names that had stuck with me from seeing scores and Cup celebrations on television.  But, in a true textbook case of "fake it 'til you make it," I began to understand two-line passes, icing, slap shots, and the five hole.  The jargon of the sport became part of my own parlance, and by the end of senior year, our mighty Wings were making a playoff push (which would be ended by the rival Avalanche for the second year in a row) and I was posing for a bonus "senior picture" with three friends of mine, all clad in Red Wings jerseys.  I didn't even own one yet, but they all had them, and one was kind enough to loan me his.  In that still frame, there is no indication that I was, up until a few months prior, a poseur.   

     I still have that photo.  But not the friendships.  At least, not as they were then.  I haven't talked to one of the guys in almost ten years.  My closeness with the other two has degraded over time due to distance and the circumstances of "life."  Nobody at fault, just people building their worlds, their families, and not clinging to high school friendships.  All of them live out of state, and of the four of us, I'm the only one who watches games regularly and still carries the flame of Red Wings passion.  I carry it for all of us.  For my past, for the friendships that defined my young adult years.  But also for the present and the future.

     There is only one person from that group of friends that I still see and speak with regularly.  My wife.  There were always several girls who came to watch the Red Wings, but they, like me at first, were there for the social element, not the crushing open ice hits and triple dekes.  It was at these hockey watching parties during my senior year that my wife and I became friends, and it was that friendship that became the basis for everything since.  I firmly believe that my decision to pretend to understand and like hockey was the catalyst for life as I know it today. 

     While my wife never became a fan of the watching the Wings, thanks to my son, I have someone to root with this playoff season.  This is the first year he has played hockey and the second that he has really understood the sport.  He literally knows more about the game at age 7 than I did when I was 14.  And he wouldn't exist if not for the Detroit Red Wings and my fateful choice to jump on the hockey bandwagon 17 years ago. 

(For Red Wings fans keeping track or looking to feel old, rookie rising star Dylan Larkin was just 2 years old then!)

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